Parashat Shoftim

Parashat Shoftim continues both Moses’ review of selected laws from the Books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers and his introduction of those laws that, until then, had not been pertinent for the generation about to enter the Land of Israel. Specifically covered are the new judicial system, further details regarding the prohibition of idolatry, laws of sacrifices, the establishment of the monarchy, the priests’ entitlements and divisions, divination vs. prophecy, cities of refuge, theft, testimony, perjury, war, and unwitnessed murder.

Thus we see that the authority of all four principal forms of Jewish leadership—judicial and legislative (the judge), executive (the king), ritual (the priest), and religious (the prophet)—are confirmed and formalized in this parashah.

Inasmuch as all four of these offices are discussed within the same parashah, whose name is shoftim, “judges,” it follows that the Torah considers the judge to be the generic prototype of leadership. This is because the role of the judge, as envisioned in this parashah, is to ensure that the behavior of both the individual and the nation conform to the Torah’s ethical, moral, and ritual standards, thereby ensuring the welfare of both the individual and the community as they combine to form a well-functioning, safe, productive, and holy society. The maintenance of such a society is essential as the basis of revealing God’s presence on earth, making the world fit to be God’s home; as we recall, society’s degeneration into a lawless jungle and humanity’s banishment of God from life brought about the Flood.

In the context of the overall theme of the Book of Deuteronomy, teshuvah—the call to return to God after a period of estrangement or lapse in commitment, as well as the tools to do so—parashat Shoftim highlights the necessity to empower and submit to authority, to subject our behavior to the review of those with whom we have entrusted the task of helping us live our lives in accordance with God’s plan and wishes.

This submission to authority is not, in the Torah’s scheme, a surrender to totalitarian oppression necessitated by the concession of human imperfection. On the contrary: since our essence, our Divine soul, intrinsically desires only to do God’s will in the fullest sense, fulfilling our unique Divine potential without hindrance, any deviation from that course is antithetical to our nature. Submission to an authority who determines if we are acting in consonance with the Torah’s directives is thus simply a way of facilitating being true to our innermost selves.

The conclusion of parashat Shoftim expresses this notion most eloquently. When the victim of an unwitnessed murder committed outside city limits is discovered, the Torah prescribes an elaborate ritual designed to remove any presumed, collective guilt for this crime from the community at large. Inasmuch as murder—depriving a person of the ability to fulfill his or her life’s mission—is the archetypal sin, and thus a metaphor for all sin, this ritual is in effect stating that we cannot ultimately be held responsible for sinning; it is because we are out of our native element in this material, God-denying world that we sometimes fall into behavior unworthy of our Divine origin. It is thus God’s doing, so to speak, that there is such a thing as sin, its purpose being that we reach a higher level of Divine consciousness by repenting and repairing the damage caused, through proper and sincere teshuvah.


The first authority to whom we must submit our behavior for scrutiny is our own, inner judge, our intellect, whose task it is to govern our emotions and actions according to the Torah’s instructions. Inasmuch as the mind by nature rules over the heart, we can use the unfortunately largely untapped power of our mind to both steer our life in the direction we know it should go as well as to release our innate love and fear of God from their imprisonment at the hands of our ingrained materiality.


The opening phrase of this parashah—“You must appoint judges and sheriffs”—indicates that the commandment to appoint judges includes the commandment to establish a well-trained and well-equipped police force to act as the arm of the law, enforcing the judges’ decisions when necessary.

In the present order, this police force is an unavoidable necessity; in fact, the Talmudic sages state that “a judge without a sheriff is not a judge.” In contrast, in the messianic future, when God will “remove the spirit of impurity from the earth,” this police force will become superfluous; litigants will willingly fulfill the judges’ decisions. The prophet Isaiah therefore informs us that in those days, God “will restore your judges as in former times, and your counselors as of yore,”1 but makes no mention of sheriffs.

Yet, the name given to this parashah is simply Shoftim (“judges”), not Shoftim veShotrim (“judges and sheriffs”), so even though the parashah discusses the necessities of the present, its name focuses our sights on the ideal state of the messianic future, when sheriffs will not be necessary.

Among the many laws and customs that constitute our current practice of Judaism, there are those that will change or even be superseded after the Redemption. Until then, however—no matter how close we approach the time of Redemption—they remain in effect in their present form. Conversely, there are numerous commandments and practices whose fulfillment has been suspended during the exile; these cannot be fulfilled until after the Redemption.

Nevertheless, one way of hastening the advent of the Redemption is by living with “messianic consciousness,” that is, by living already—as far as permissible and possible—the way we will live after the Messiah comes.2 It follows that readily heeding the instructions and advice of our “judges”—the religious authorities who apply the Torah’s teachings to the specificities of each generation—without the need for “sheriffs” to enforce their instructions, is itself a way of ushering in the messianic era.3